PUBLISHED: 10:00 07 September 2015
The Shetland Pony Grand National is a much loved British tradition seen by thousands at events up and down the country. LUCY JOHNSON meets a young aspiring jockey from Somerset
The sound of tiny thundering hooves, the flash of brightly coloured silks speeding by, the cheer of excited crowds. It’s not Aintree, but it could be, such is the popularity of Shetland pony racing. Up and down the country a great British tradition is leaving crowds enthralled and children dreaming of becoming a jockey as eight or more tiny ponies race flat out around the arena, jumping flights of hurdles on their way.
Crouched low over their backs sit tiny jockeys, no more than five feet tall in fact, and to a crescendo of cheering from spectators, they urge their mounts towards the winning post and then pull up, exultant smiles beaming from their faces.
This is the Shetland Pony Grand National, an established tradition at equine events up and down the country that fundraises in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity by taking a team of racing Shetlands to many locations across the country competing for qualification to the Olympia Horse Show, which is held every year at Christmas time.
From the prestigious Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe, home to HRH The Princess Royal, to Royal Windsor, the most colourful of equine extravaganzas, Shetland pony racing is popular, exciting, and often, where budding jockeys begin their race riding education.
Top jockey Sam Twiston-Davies cut his teeth racing Shetlands.
“It was a great experience,” he says. “You were racing tight together and at speed over fences. The ponies were very sharp so you had to be on the ball. It is such a great way to start off racing. I rode different ponies but my favourite was one called Sooty who was very fast.
“Riding at Olympia was the highlight as the very best Shetlands from all over the country raced there. Riding the Shetlands really taught me a lot and I loved every minute of it.”
After a trip to Gatcombe last year, 11-year-old Kitty Walker from Shepton Mallet and a pupil at All Hallows School was smitten and persuaded her mother Hannah to find out how to get involved.
If you are a good rider, and fit certain criteria – aged between nine and 14, the right height and able to walk, trot, canter and jump two feet high - then you can apply. Kitty ticked all the boxes having ridden since a very young age.
“When I saw them at Gatcombe I pestered my mum until she let me do it and said yes!” says Kitty.
The next step was finding a Shetland pony trainer to provide the pony and Philip and Trish Mitchell duly stepped in.
“I also encouraged Kitty to find a sponsor and we were extremely fortunate that the Morson Group – experts in Engineer and Design recruitment and big racing fans - stepped in to help,” says Hannah.
“In April, we were invited to a bespoke training day in Warwick,” says Kitty. “We had to warm up, go over a practice jump and then race around in pairs, fours and then eights. After that they said I could race the Shetlands and I was selected to ride at Badminton Horse Trials.”
Kitty went to Badminton, among the most famous four-star events in the world, along with another newcomer to the sport and her best friend, Olive Nicholls, daughter of champion trainer Paul.
“We were so proud of ourselves to be riding at Badminton, although it was pretty nerve-wracking,” says Kitty.
Despite falling off at the Rutland Show on her second race meeting having lost her stirrups, Kitty was undeterred. “I managed to jump four fences without stirrups and then eventually fell off in the pouring rain, so I tucked myself up into a ball until I was told it was safe to get back up again. I finished third in the afternoon race and so was quite pleased.”
“They are very special ponies. Shetlands don’t look fast but they really are.
“You go flat out, as fast as you can and if you get a good start you’re in with a good chance of winning. It’s such an amazing feeling, especially when you hear the crowd cheering you on.”
Olympia is Kitty’s ultimate goal and if she is lucky enough to qualify she will go there with nine other riders. Not only will she race twice a day, but she will also be able to decorate her stable and enter it in the annual competition.
“I would love it if I went there. It’s been brilliant racing the Shetlands and I’m so lucky to be able to do it and I must thank the Morson Group and Trish Mitchell for helping me enjoy this amazing opportunity. I really admire AP McCoy and Sam Twiston-Davies, and one day I want to be a jockey too,” she says.